Andy Murray sails to first title of year in Dubai, and admits: It’s been a great run
The world number one eases to the Dubai Duty Free Championships title thanks to a 6-3 6-2 victory over Fernando Verdasco
Andy Murray was only 20 when he first played at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships but already he was a star on the rise, ranked No11. As if to prove the point, he made a real opening statement: Match one, victory over world No1 Roger Federer, who had already won the title in Dubai four times.
It would be Federer’s only defeat in the first round here, and he would then deny the Briton in his only final finish in 2012. But almost a decade on, it is Murray who tops the world at No1, and with Federer and defending champion Stan Wawrinka losing early, Murray had gone from favourite at the start of the week to red hot favourite by the time he took to court in his second Dubai title match.
For there is no getting away from it: Murray has been the man to beat since last summer. During 2016, he won nine titles from 13 finals, and beginning with his final run in Madrid, he put together a 67-5 run, undefeated on grass, winning his second Olympic gold, and then undefeated through the last five tournaments of the year, claiming the No1 ranking with his first World Tour Finals trophy.
Perhaps the tiredness from that gut-busting effort still lingered as he made a fourth-round exit from the Australian Open—and he subsequently confessed to a bout of shingles in the aftermath of that tournament before coming to Dubai—but even so, he was now into his 14th final from his last 16 tournaments, and his second this year.
If all that was not enough to put a spring in the substantial legs of Murray, he would not even face a seed in the final. Instead, it was 33-year-old Fernando Verdasco, ranked 35, and a man Murray had beaten 12 times in their 13 previous matches.
Yet the powerful Spaniard was not a man to be taken lightly. A former world No7, he had ambitions to climb higher up the ranks again.
“Just with this tournament, it’s already 300 points for me, and I will make a good jump in the rankings. I hope it’s going to be a good injection of energy and motivation again… And why not coming back again in the top 20? Then top 15, then maybe, top 10, as I was. I know how hard it is, because I have been already No7. So I will just try to keep fighting.”
The Spaniard was certainly playing the kind of tennis that had challenged big names before. Few will forget his five-set, five-hour marathon against Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open semis in 2009—beating Murray in five en route—as well as closing that year at the World Tour Finals with three three-setters against Murray, Juan Martin del Potro and Federer.
And though most of Verdasco’s seven titles had come on clay, Murray’s encounters with him on hard and grass courts had rarely been easy. Way back in Dubai 2008, it took a final tie-break to separate them, in the Paris Masters last year, it was a close 6-3, 6-7(5), 7-5 win for the Briton, and on his way to a first Wimbledon title in 2013, Murray was two sets to love down to the Spaniard in the quarter-finals.
This week, Verdasco had already disposed of No4 seed Gael Monfils and No6 seed Roberto Baustista Agut, and he had held match-points against Novak Djokovic in the semis in Doha. None of this was lost on Murray:
“Obviously this week he’s had some good wins. I think where the balls are fairly heavy here on a quick court, he can generate a lot of power, he can control the ball. And when he’s dictating the points, he’s one of the best in the world at doing that.”
In the initial stages, though, Verdasco needed to do little out of the ordinary to get a quick break: Two double faults from Murray, two break points, and Verdasco led. But the Spaniard also looked tight, and made four straight errors to hand the break back to love.
And so it continued, with more errors from Murray and a third straight break, before Verdasco settled briefly into his rhythm with a cracking backhand winner and hold with a 130mph ace. He led 3-1.
And that stung Murray into action: a superb cross-court backhand winner got the break back. For a short time, both played lights-out shots at the same time, and one remarkable exchange of forehands, a drop shot from Verdasco, and a pick-up from Murray, and the Spaniard went flying to the court. Murray clenched his fist as he took the lead for the first time. 4-3.
The stress seemed to be getting to Verdasco now, as he chopped and changed rackets, raised his shoulders in disbelief at his own errors—an easy netted volley stood out—and Murray pounced. A final forehand thumped wide and the Briton broke, served out the set to love, 6-3.
Verdasco did well to hold the opener of the second set. Already disgruntled at being hurried to the baseline as he meticulously taped his racket grip, he then got a time violation warning and thumped two aces in response. He held, but he would get only one more game as Murray produced flashes of brilliance in his pick-ups and added to the pressure with some fine serving.
The Briton went 10-10 on first serve and dropped only one on his second delivery in the entire set, and sealed his first Dubai title with a love hold, 6-2, in just 73 minutes.
As is the style in Dubai, there were lavish celebrations: fireworks, bangers, dancers and one of the most distinctive trophies in tennis, a silver dhow like those that ply the creek here in Dubai.
Murray rarely looks entirely comfortable with being the centre of attention, but this was special. It made him the first Briton to win in Dubai, and on its 25th anniversary. So yes, he would like to come back next year “[smiling] if the tournament wants me.”
He remained as low-key as ever with the media, having spent plenty of time signing for fans first. He was pleased with his performance after a slow start, and hoped to get to Indian Wells in good time to adjust to the conditions there.
But what of the fact that he had now won 10 titles from his last 16 tournaments, including his fourth straight 500?
“It’s been a great run. Can’t complain about much.”
The man in a nutshell.